Sniffing Gas: White House Taps ARPA-E to Boost Methane Detection

Gasbot 2.0. Photo: Victor Hernandez

Gasbot photo: Victor Hernandez

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum we spotlight the methane emissions overlooked by the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, and the satellite-based detector launching next year to map this “missing methane.” Last week the White House acknowledged EPA’s missing methane problem, and laid out a strategy to combat it. While promising to improve EPA’s inventory, including more use of top-down methane measurement, the White House also promised federal investment in ground-based methane sensing to plug leaky natural gas systems thought to be the source of much of the missing methane.

Action can’t come soon enough according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on Monday unveiled its latest report onClimate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The IPCC said “widespread and consequential” impacts are already visible and world leaders have only a few years to change course to avoid catastrophic warning. Methane is a major contributor according to the scientific body’s update on the physical basis for climate change, released last fall, which deemed methane to be up to 44 percent more potent as a warming agent than previously recognized.

The White House says that the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E high-risk energy R&D fund will contribute by seeking to improve natural gas sensors, which are presently sensitive or cheap but not both. ARPA-E is preparing a new funding program that the White House says will “deliver an order-of-magnitude reduction on the cost of methane sensing, thus facilitating much wider deployment throughout all segments of natural gas systems.”

One contestant for funding could be robotic systems such as the Swedish-developed Gasbot profiled by Spectrum last year. Gasbot, a project from Sweden’s Örebro University, uses a mobile robot from Kitchener, Ont.-basedClearpath Robotics equipped with a laser-based remote gas sensor to map methane concentrations across a potential leak site. Orebro doctoral student Victor Hernandez says the Gasbot team has implemented improvements sinceSpectrum‘s coverage, including the addition of an anemometer to help determine where detected emissions are coming from.

Using a robot might reduce labor costs and accelerate the process of mapping a site, such as a natural gas plant or a landfill, and Hernandez says a market survey conducted last year has confirmed commercial interest in Gasbot. But Örebro’s package doesn’t come cheap in its present incarnation. The gas sensor alone costs about €10 000 (US $13 760), he says, and the Clearpath A-200 robot is another $12 000 or so.

Another contestant could be the laser science research group at Rice University, in Houston, which has recently demonstrated two novel strategies for building compact, sensitive and potentially low-cost methane detectors. The best developed relies on recently miniaturized mid-infraredquantum cascade lasers and cheap piezo-electric devices to detect the laser-excited heating of traces of methane gas—traces as thin as 13 parts per billion (ppb) according to group leader Frank Tittel, a professor of electrical engineering. His newer system uses advanced optics to more than double the methane sensitivity.

Tittel’s group has already proven its devices at a Houston landfill through a NASA program designed to calibrate space-based measurements of methane and other pollutants. He projects that the piezo-electrically tuned sensor could be scaled down and mass produced to deliver a $1000 system the size of a smart phone. The key, says Tittel, is mass production of the lasers, which currently cost $12 000.

Tittel says his group has teamed up with Newton, N.J.-based Thorlabs, which makes the required quantum cascade lasers as well as the electronics, mechanical stabilizers, and optics to build an integrated product.

Thorlabs appears to be keen. The company presented at an ARPA-E methane technology workshop last year, and declared its intention to “grow the [mid-infrared laser] market by reducing component costs.”

Message to missing methane: You may soon have nowhere to hide.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Satellites and Simulations Track Missing Methane

In the April 2014 issue of IEEE Spectrum:

Methane emissions from oil and gas extraction, herding livestock, and other human activities in the United States are likely 25 to 75 percent higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently recognizes, according to ameta-analysis of methane emissions research published recently in Science. While experts in remote sensing debate the merits of this and other recent challenges to the EPA’s numbers, definitive answers are already on order via a high-precision Earth observation satellite to be launched next year.

The intensifying methane emissions debate has profound implications for climate and energy policy. Natural gas consumption is rising, and methane’s global warming impact is more than 30 times as much as that of carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule, and second only to carbon dioxide’s in today’s net climate impact …

click to read on

Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas

Heavy water use, threats of tainted groundwater, and artificial earthquakes are but a sampling of the environmental side effects that have tarnished North America’s recent boom in natural gas production via hydraulic fracturing or fracking. No surprise then that in European countries such as the U.K. that are looking to frack for cheap domestic gas, the environmental protesters often arrive ahead of the drill rigs.

But countries seeking fresh gas supplies could do far worse than fracking. So say Duke University researchers who, in today’s issue of the research journal Nature Climate Change, shine a jaundiced spotlight on China’s plans to synthesize natural gas from coal. Nine synthetic gas plants recently approved by Beijing would increase the annual demand for water in the country’s arid northern regions by over 180 million metric tons, the Duke team concluded, while emissions of carbon dioxide would entirely wipe out the climate-cooling impact of China’s massive wind and solar power installations. Continue reading

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

Is Gas Fracking Inducing Earthquakes?

India’s Koyna Dam: The textbook case for induced seismicity

Fracking for natural gas, whereby gas-trapping rock formations are blasted open with high-pressure water and chemicals, has prompted serious concerns over the safety of groundwater supplies. But another risk is gaining profile: the potential for inducing nerve-rattling microseismicity or, potentially, unleashing a quake of truly destructive magnitude. Like the magnitude-5.6 quake that rocked Oklahoma last weekend.

As I documented for Spectrum magazine this spring, human activity can and does induce earthquakes. Continue reading

Quebecers Say ‘Non’ to “Gaz de Shit”

Heckled and booed off the stage at a series of public meetings earlier this month, Quebec’s salesman-in-chief for a novel energy development withdrew from the fight this week – citing the advice of worried doctors but vowing to rejoin the fight. The inspiration for André Caillé’s intemperate welcome was not a coal-fired power plant or a pipeline full of heavy oil from Alberta’s tarsands, but what until recently was considered the green fossil fuel: methane. Continue reading

Fuel Cell Hype and Hopes

Fuel cells deserved to hit the headlines this week, but not the way that it played out. The big splash came thanks to CBS News’ 60 MINUTES and heavy hyping of a stationary fuel cell developer emerging from stealth-mode development. More surprising, and of real significance, was a projection yesterday by Pike Research that fuel cell-equipped vehicles will go commercial in just 4 years.

The problem with Bloom Energy’s Bloom Box stationary fuel cell is that, despite 60 MINUTES’ assertion that it might be the holy grail to free Americans shackled to a coal-fired grid, the company has yet to deliver a product. Moreover, the technology is hardly new. Continue reading